Daily | Noel Black, 1937 – 2014

Pretty Poison

A poster for the times

Film and television historian Stephen Bowie not only seems to have broken the news that director Noel Black has died at the age of 77, he’s also written a vital remembrance. Though he won a prize at Cannes in 1966 for his short film Skaterdater and directed dozens of television movies and episodes, we can be sure Black will most likely be remembered for Pretty Poison (1968):

[It] was a troubled production in which the inexperienced director clashed with both his crew and his leading lady, Tuesday Weld (“neurotic as hell,” according to co-star John Randolph). (Weld: “Noel Black would come up to me before a scene and say, ‘Think about Coca-Cola.’ I finally said, ‘Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he’ll interpret for me.’”) A very dark comedy about the bond between an arsonist (Perkins) and a budding psychopath, scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Pretty Poison was an important forerunner to the New Hollywood movement, not only in its flouting of conventional film morality and its New Wave influences (Andrew Sarris complained that Black had borrowed too conspicuously from Antonioni and Resnais) but in the unlikely marriage between film-school talent and big-studio machinery.

The resource on Pretty Poison is an entry put together at Alt Screen when the film was playing at New York’s Film Forum in 2012.

In 2007, Dan Sallitt followed up on his own piece on Pretty Poison with one he’d written in 1981 on A Change of Seasons (1980). Black had been removed from that one after shooting the first half, and Dan “wrote about its acting in terms that dovetail nicely with the issues I raised about Pretty Poison.”

Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., by the way, passed away in March.

Update, 7/29: Mike Barnes in the Hollywood Reporter: “Black also helmed the features Cover Me Babe (1970), starring Robert Forster; Jennifer on My Mind (1971), written by Erich Segal of Love Story fame; the voodoo thriller Mirrors (1978); and the comedy Private School (1983), with Phoebe Cates and Matthew Modine. Black helmed many telefilms throughout his career, including I’m a Fool, The Golden Honeymoon and The Hollow Boy for PBS; The Electric Grandmother for NBC; and The Other Victim, with William Devane, and Promises to Keep, starring Robert Mitchum, for CBS.”

Updates, 8/2: Two new obituaries. Variety looks back on Pretty Poison: “Perkins plays an arsonist who’s done his time and tries to win the affection of a pretty blond student, played by Weld. But despite a well-scrubbed facade, Weld’s character is in fact a psychopath, and soon the pair are committing a string of crimes, including homicide.”

Daniel E. Slotnik in the New York Times: “Mr. Perkins plays a paroled arsonist who pretends to be a secret agent to win over a stunning blond honor student, played by Ms. Weld. But underneath Ms. Weld’s wholesome facade lies a psychopath, and she and Mr. Perkins embark on a murderous crime spree…. Mr. Black spoke about the movie to film students at Boston University. ‘Essentially, we saw it as a story with many comedic elements in a serious framework—a kind of black comedy or existential humor of which Dr. Strangelove is a prototype,’ he said. ‘We hoped people would take it on more than one level.'”

Update, 8/7: Writing for Film Comment, Ronald Bergan recalls talking with Black while he (Bergan) was working on a book about Tony Perkins. “How did Black feel about being treated as a one-hit wonder? ‘I don’t mind, especially as Pretty Poison is what people like to call “a cult classic. … Tuesday and Tony got on professionally, though she probably resented how much more in tune he was with me than she was,’ Black recalled discreetly. ‘He was the quintessential professional. Even though he had made 20 or so movies and this was my first, he listened to everything I had to tell him. What he brought was a personal sense of humanity and dignity, which gave the character a sympathetic quality.'”

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